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Smokers can easily identify “light” and “mild” cigarettes, despite a federal law banning those words, because tobacco companies have substituted color names for those terms, a new study concludes.

The companies have used this color-coding to evade the ban on misleading wording, and to convey the false message that these products are safer than “regular” cigarettes, say researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health. They published their findings in Tobacco Control.

Tobacco companies began making “light” cigarettes following the U.S. Surgeon General’s 1964 report that concluded cigarette smoking causes disease, Science Daily reports. These cigarettes have ventilation holes that allow air to mix with smoke. The companies said this design limited the amount of smoke a person inhaled. In 2001, the National Cancer Institute found smokers make up for the lower smoke yield by smoking more intensely, more often or by blocking the holes with their fingers or lips. The result is they ingest as much tar and nicotine as when they smoke regular cigarettes.

The Food and Drug Administration banned use of “light” and similar terms from cigarette packaging in 2009, as part of the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act.

The Harvard researchers found tobacco maker Philip Morris substituted color names for the previous terms. “Marlboro Light” became “Marlboro Gold,” while “Marlboro Mild” was renamed “Marlboro Blue,” and Marlboro Ultra-light” became “Marlboro Silver.” Other tobacco companies made similar name changes. The cigarettes themselves remained unchanged.

The study found in a survey, 82 percent of smokers said it was very easy to identify their usual brand of cigarette, and 10 percent found it somewhat easy. This means they still thought of certain brands as “light,” even though the packages did not use that word, the researchers said.


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